Rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins was a native
Tennessean who'd grown up in a sharecropping family in Tiptonville,
a farming community north of Memphis. At 7, he began playing
a guitar that his father had made from a cigar box, broomstick
and baling wire. He listened to country music, gospel, and
blues, and began to write some of his own compositions. He
began performing in the Forties in the Perkins Brothers Band,
which included siblings Jay and Clayton, and was right on track
with Presley in the synthesis of rock and roll from homegrown
Perkins was close at hand when the two currents that defined Southern music at
mid-century — rhythm & blues and country & western — came
together as rock and roll in the person of Elvis Presley. In fact, Presley's
first release — "That's All Right (Mama)" and "Blue Moon
of Kentucky" — inspired Perkins to head straight for the source of
the music, Sun Records, and offer his services to owner/producer, Sam Phillips.
Perkins signed with Sun and released his first single for the label, "Movie
Magg," in 1954 (at age 13 he performed this song at a local talent show
and won). In December 1955, he recorded a song of his that would quickly become
the signature song of the rockabilly genre: "Blue Suede Shoes." It
was a tune so full of hot licks and hipster cool that Presley himself was moved
to cover it. Perkins' original version of the song became rock and roll's first
across-the-board chart hit, simultaneously reaching #5 on the pop, country and
Unfortunately, while en route to New York for a TV performance, Perkins was sidelined
by a terrible car accident in which both he and his brother Jay suffered serious
injuries. After recovering, Perkins resumed his career at Sun, recording a brace
of classic rockabilly sides — including "Boppin' the Blues" and "Matchbox" — throughout
1956. On December 4th of that year, Perkins and Sun labelmates Presley, Jerry
Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash held an impromptu jam session in the studio. The foursome
were dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet, although the results of their legendary
summit meeting were not officially released until 1990.
Perkins moved to Columbia Records in 1958, where he had some minor rockabilly
hits. In 1964, while touring Britain, he learned to his great surprise that he'd
been a major influence on the Beatles, especially guitarist George Harrison.
Under Perkins' supervision, the Beatles cut five of his songs — more songs
than they ever recorded by any other composer outside the band — including "Matchbox," "Honey
Don't" and "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby." Perkins' career
got another boost when fellow Sun Records alumnus Johnny Cash tapped him to tour
and record as part of his band in the mid-Sixties and featured him as a regular
on his Seventies variety show. When the roots-oriented side of the new wave movement,
driven by such retro-minded bands as the Stray Cats, took hold in the early Eighties,
Perkins found himself back in favor once again. In 1985, he reunited with Sun
Records stalwarts Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison to record an album entitled "Class
Having survived a bout with throat cancer in the early nineties, Perkins continued
to perform and record. He also owns two restaurants and operates a charity he
founded, the Carl Perkins Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse. His autobiography, Go,
Cat, Go was published in 1995.
Perkins passed away on January 19, 1998; he is survived by his wife, Valda, three
sons and a daughter.
Carl Perkins was a member of Al Chymia Shriners in Memphis, Tennessee.